What happened to space tourism?

Before we get started today, I’d like to say thank you for taking part in our legal cannabis survey.

We had an overwhelming response, and the results speak for themselves.

99% of you agreed that cannabis should be legalised in the UK for medical purposes.

And 84% of you said you’d like to know how to invest in the medical cannabis market.

How to invest in the legal cannabis market was the subject of Nick O’Connor and Sam Volkering’s investor presentation on Wednesday. And it couldn’t have been timelier, with Canada’s legalisation vote passing this week.

Don’t worry if you missed it. You can watch the recording here. But I’m not sure for how long. So if you’re interested, I’d watch it now rather than later.

Now on to today’s essay…

Remember when space tourism was going to be the next big thing?

We were promised regular trips to space, with ever diminishing costs.

Sure the first few participants paid millions for the privilege, but after 10 or 20 years space flight would be within the realm of possibility for many people.

Well, it is 17 years since the first ever space tourist, Dennis Tito, paid an estimated $20 million for his flight. So where are the Ryanairs and easyJets of space tourism?

The short answer is, there aren’t any.

In fact, there have only ever been seven space tourists in total.

Here they all are (click image to enlarge):

Source: Wikipedia

The last one, Cirque du Soleil co-founder Guy Laliberté, went up way back in 2009 – almost a decade ago.

There were big plans for space tourism, but not many companies are left. Only three major players remain.

They are:

  • Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin
  • Elon Musk’s SpaceX
  • And Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.

All three of these billionaires see their spaceflight projects as hugely meaningful for humanity.

In fact, just last month Bezos claimed that lunar exploration and eventual settlement is “not something that we may choose to do; this is something we must do.”

And he called his spaceship company, Blue Origin LLC, “the most important work I am doing.”

Branson, in an interview at the end of May, said his first spaceflight “will be the most important day of my life.”

And Musk… well, there are no end of Musk quotes about his space travel plans. Here’s one of his best: “I think the most important thing is to create a self-sustaining city on Mars. That’s, I think, the critical thing for maximising the life of humanity.”

“No ride anywhere in the world that will be like it”

Now, after almost a decade of nothing, all three companies seem ready for their human-carrying debut.

Let’s take a look at where they are.


You may remember SpaceX’s big test launch of its Falcon Heavy earlier this year – the one where Musk floated a Tesla Roadster out in space, to the sound of David Bowie’s Life on Mars.

You can watch Jonathan Nolan’s (Westworld, The Dark Knight, Interstellar) edit of it by clicking the video below, if not.

Well, since that successful launch, SpaceX is planning commercial launches for its Falcon Heavy rocket later this year. And is aiming for “several” launches a year.

The main selling point of the Falcon Heavy is that most of it is reusable. As you can see in that video, it safely lands back on Earth after deploying its cargo.

Musk’s moon tourism plans on hold

In 2017, Musk said he had been approached by two people who wanted to pay for a flight to the moon. These were not NASA astronauts, but normal people. And the plan was to send them to the moon in 2018.

However, that plan is now on hold.

From The Verge this February:

When asked about the mission, Musk said the trip depends on the development of SpaceX’s next monster rocket, the Big Falcon Rocket, or BFR. Last year, Musk said that soon SpaceX would put most of its resources into developing the BFR and eventually discontinue the Falcon Heavy and Falcon 9 altogether.

Today, Musk said as long as the BFR’s development happens on schedule, SpaceX will send people, including the two tourists, into space on the new rocket. This would save the company the trouble of getting Falcon Heavy approved for human spaceflight only to turn around and replace it with the BFR. However, if the BFR takes longer to make than expected, then it’s possible SpaceX will return to the idea of putting crews on Falcon Heavy.

Okay, so SpaceX is still planning on space tourism, just not yet. No real change there then, even if its achievements in reusable rockets are huge.

What about the other two?

Blue Origin

While SpaceX has been grabbing headlines, Blue Origin has been plugging away, putting in the hours.

As Space.com reported in April (emphasis mine):

New Shepard is a rocket manufactured by Blue Origin for space tourism. The rocket is designed to take passengers into suborbital space inside of a crew capsule. The capsule features six large observation windows, which Blue Origin says are the largest ever constructed for a spacecraft.

New Shepard is fully reusable and as of April 2018, it has made seven test launches. In November 2015, it was the first reusable rocket to successfully make a soft landing on the ground, beating out the more famous SpaceX Falcon 9 booster by several weeks. 

Blue Origin likely will not bring passengers into space before late 2018 (according to a 2017 article from SpaceNews), but it has released details of the flight path. When passenger flights happen, New Shepard will launch vertically for about two and a half minutes before main engine cut-off. 

The capsule will then separate from the rocket; passengers will be weightless for about four minutes during the 11-minute flight, and will be high enough (at an altitude of 307,000 feet or 93,573 meters) to see the curvature of Earth. The spacecraft will coast for a few minutes in space before re-entering the atmosphere. New Shepard will land using an autonomous, rocket powered vertical landing system.

Seven test launches and a potential passenger date of later this year. Perhaps Bezos’ Blue Origin will finally realise the space tourism trade.

Given that he is the richest person in the world, and he is pouring a massive amount of his wealth into this project, I’d say it has a good chance of succeeding. Especially as he named it as the most important thing he’s doing with his life.

And what about the original space tourism billionaire, Branson?

Richard Branson will be aboard Virgin Galactic’s first ever flight

The man who kicked off the whole space tourism trade was Richard Branson. He started selling tickets for Virgin Galactic years ago.

And he sold a lot.

So far over 700 people have paid $250,000 each for a ticket.

Virgin’s latest spacecraft completed its second successful flight in May, and Branson has high hopes for its full deployment.

He says the first passengers will fly in a matter of months, and that he will be among them.

According to CNBC on 29 May:

Branson’s space company has “a step-by-step cautious approach” in its testing program, he said, doing “whatever it takes to make absolutely certain that we’ve put everything to bed” before trying to send humans into space. Tuesday’s flight was its second rocket-powered launch since the fatal crash of its Enterprise spacecraft on Oct. 31, 2014. Unity underwent extensive engine testing and seven glide tests before Virgin Galactic said it was ready to make another rocket-powered flight.

He doesn’t see his company as in competition with Bezos’ Blue Origin. In fact he says “both companies need to succeed.”

And he sees space flight as like the early days of crossing the Atlantic. He believes it will eventually come down to an affordable level: “It cost a [relatively] similar sum of money to send wealthy people across the Atlantic. … And over the years the price came down to a level where enormous quantities of people were able to go.”

So of the three, it seems like it’s between Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic. But all three companies believe humanity’s future lies in space. So I guess that would make them among the most important companies on the planet.

How will future spaceships be powered?

The big question behind all of this is, how will our future spaceships be fuelled?

You’ve seen the massive tanks of rocket fuel these things take up with them. The reusable rockets save enough to land safely back on Earth after a short flight.

But what if they wanted to go further? What if they really wanted to be able to explore the galaxy? How would they ever be able to carry enough fuel?

Back in the mid-20th century, most sci-fi writers thought serious spaceships would be nuclear powered. Each spaceship would be fitted with a mini nuclear reactor that could power it indefinitely.

Today, that idea seems crazy. Our nuclear plants are huge. They haven’t had any major developments in decades. The idea of a mini nuclear reactor powering a ship belongs in science fiction, doesn’t it?

Not according to this.

There has been a breakthrough in a new type of nuclear energy that could realistically power all manner of machines. And provide all our planet’s energy needs while it’s at it.

Sounds too good to be true? Have a look at the evidence for yourself here, and then decide.

Until next time,

Harry Hamburg
Editor, Exponential Investor

PS Remember, you can still watch Nick and Sam’s presentation on investing in legal cannabis. But I’m not sure how long for. So if you haven’t seen it yet, click here and watch it now.

Category: Technology

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